Moving away to university for the first time is exciting, but it can also be daunting. When we surveyed applicants last year, most of them were both excited and anxious about going to university.

Settling in well and finding the right community can make a huge difference to students’ mental wellbeing, even those who have already faced challenging circumstances in their lives.

Our Unite Foundation scholars receive free accommodation for three years in a Unite Students building. They usually have no direct parental support, and may have been in local authority care. Going to university without the emotional and practical support that most students take for granted can be especially difficult. Aroosa, one of our Unite Foundation scholars, talked about her experiences.

“Leaving family and friends and not knowing what to expect from university was scary for me. Change is always hard.

“But I’ve never felt more at home than when living with Unite Students. There’s always something to do (and not just work) and always someone to talk to.  Being a Unite Foundation scholar at De Montfort University, I feel as if I’ve created a perfect world of my own from scratch – right here in Leicester. The community has been so inviting and supportive since I first stepped foot on campus.”

Those providing student accommodation can make a big contribution to student wellbeing by helping to nurture community and an inclusive culture. One way to achieve this is through inclusive building design, like having welcoming common areas and open spaces with games, beanbags and benches. The other side of it lies with the staff.

Staff and student ambassadors can organise activities in these spaces to help build a peer-to-peer support network in the first few weeks of term. It’s also important that student-facing staff are knowledgeable about student life, can show empathy, and have the practical knowledge to signpost students to appropriate services and support.

Increasingly, digital services can play a role too. The ‘uChat’ functionality on the Unite Students app allowed this year’s new students to find and chat with their future flatmates before they arrived. And our new Common Room website provides helpful tips on making friends, maintaining good flatmate relationships and sustaining a healthy mental wellbeing through tougher times.

Student accommodation is not just a bed, it should be a home. It has the potential to provide both physical and emotional safety from which students can make the most of their university experience. And in those crucial first few days and the following weeks it can help dial up the excitement whilst easing anxieties. This gives all students a better chance of success.

Jenny Shaw, Head of Student Services & Insight